NASA revising second station repair spacewalk

Faced with an unexpected ammonia leak, NASA engineers revise plans for replacing a coolant system pump aboard the International Space Station.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--Flight controllers are revising plans for a second spacewalk Wednesday to replace a coolant pump aboard the International Space Station, adding work to isolate an ammonia leak that should clear the way for installation of a new pump during a third spacewalk Sunday.

A formal decision on whether to proceed with the Wednesday spacewalk is expected after NASA's space station Mission Management Team reviews preparations during a meeting Tuesday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The pump module, one of two in independent coolant loops, circulates ammonia through huge radiators to dissipate the heat generated by the lab's electronics. The loop A pump shorted out July 31, forcing the six-member crew to implement an extensive powerdown to prevent equipment from overheating.

To replace a coolant loop pump module, astronauts must disconnect five electrical cables, four ammonia lines and four bolts. During a spacewalk Saturday, problems with the M3 ammonia line quick-disconnect fitting forced NASA engineers to revise a second spacewalk Wednesday. NASA

The station can operate safely with just one coolant loop, but both are needed for normal operations. Adding a bit of urgency is the lack of redundancy in a critical system. If the loop B system should suffer a shutdown before loop A is repaired, the space station would face a much more serious problem with little time to resolve it.

Astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted the first of what was expected to be a two-spacewalk repair job Saturday. They had hoped to disconnect the old pump, uncouple five electrical lines and four ammonia quick-disconnects, before installing a spare pump at the end of the excursion. Ammonia lines were to be reconnected during a second spacewalk Wednesday.

But Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson ran into major problems with a quick-disconnect fitting on one of the ammonia lines attached to the failed pump. After struggling to simply disconnect the M3 fitting, they ran into a significant leak that forced them to leave the line in place while troubleshooters considered what to do next.

Because of the leak, the spacewalk ran eight hours and three minutes and required a decontamination procedure at the end to make sure the astronauts did not bring any toxic ammonia back into the station's pressurize modules.

Engineers believe the leak is due to problems with one of two valves in the quick-disconnect fitting. The valve in question is outboard of the pump module and cannot easily be vented to stop the leak.

As a result, engineers have come up with a revised plan for the crew's second spacewalk Wednesday, one that would require them to first close off an ammonia jumper between the central S0 truss segment and the starboard one, or S1, segment. Another quick-disconnect fitting near the outboard end of the S1 segment also must be closed.

To lower pressure in that segment of the line, flight controllers plan to activate a pressure relief valve before the spacewalk begins to make it easier for the astronauts to close the S0/S1 segment quick disconnect. Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson then can use a vent tool to release any residual ammonia trapped in the line leading to the M3 quick-disconnect.

Assuming that works, the M3 line will be removed, clearing the way for Wheelock to disconnect the five electrical cables and loosen the four bolts holding the failed pump module in place. Caldwell Dyson, meanwhile, will prepare a spare pump module on external storage platform No. 2 for removal during the third spacewalk.

With that work done, Wheelock, assisted by Caldwell Dyson, will use an adjustable grapple bar to move the failed unit to a powered payload attachment fitting at the base of the robot arm's mobile transporter.

At that point, the spacewalkers will collect their tools and return to the Quest airlock for possible decontamination procedures.

If all goes well, the astronauts will be able to carry out a third spacewalk Sunday to install the spare pump module, disconnect a pressure-regulating jumper box and reconnect the electrical cables and ammonia lines. The failed pump module eventually will be moved to external storage platform No. 2, but it's not clear when that might happen.

About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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